California moving forward with plans for regional power grid, but questions, debate far from over
Two California entities are forging ahead with a plan to create a regional grid involving Utah and 10 other western states.
The California Independent System Operator — or CAISO, the nonprofit most assume will manage electrical distribution on behalf of the utilities that opt into the regional grid — recently released the preliminary results of its research into the impact a regional grid would have on the environment, the economy, vulnerable populations and California electrical customers.
And the state’s Energy Commission is drawing up a vision for what the governing body of a regional grid might look like — a sticking point for Utah leaders, who are wary of giving California power over its energy decisions.
The groups have a state-mandated deadline in mind as they pursue their parallel tracks: California legislation passed last year requires that a formal proposal for grid integration be ready for lawmakers by the end of 2017.
But many unanswered questions about the details of the proposal remain, and debate about the broader plan is far from over.
CAISO’s environmental study has drawn the attention of the Sierra Club, which points to predictions that electrical sector carbon emissions would increase from 64.2 million tons per year to 64.3 million tons per year by 2020, before dropping off to something in the range of 48.2 million-54.1 million tons per year by 2030.
“The report that came out shows that there is an immediate and significant increase in coal dispatch,” said Shane Levy, spokesman for the Sierra Club. “That is something we’re really concerned about.”
Levy said the Sierra Club objects not so much to the idea of a regional grid as to the players involved in the current proposal. PacifiCorp, which operates as Rocky Mountain Power in Utah, is on track to become the first participating utility, Levy said, and it tends to be a very coal-intensive company.
But other environmental groups, such as Western Resource Advocates, are supporting the proposal, arguing a regional grid could boost generation from renewable resources.
Solar power generation, for example, peaks in the middle of the day, but demand for electricity peaks in the evening. In the absence of technological means to store electricity on a large scale, energy must be used more or less the moment it’s generated.
In California, solar generation during the day already exceeds concurrent demand, occasionally forcing some solar arrays to shut down at peak generation.
A regional grid could allow California to send this surplus solar power to states such as Utah, where the sun is setting and electrical demand increasing at roughly the same time that solar generation is at its peak on the coast.
“From Western Resource Advocates’ perspective, we’re here to ensure our power is as clean as possible,” and a regional grid would make clean energy more feasible, said staff attorney Jennifer Gardner.
Environmental advocates aren’t the only ones arguing this line. A study released in January and funded by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration concluded that a nationwide grid had the potential to cut U.S. electrical sector emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas thought to contribute to global warming, by 80 percent relative to 1990 levels, without decreasing the amount of electricity generated.